Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Patriots win over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI was the play of their secondary. Time and again the talented and dangerous Rams wide receivers had trouble getting open, and when they did usually found a New England defensive back close by ready to deliver a crushing blow.
That formula was instrumental in the Patriots limiting the Rams to just 17 points. But in order to execute Bill Belichick's wonderful game plan, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel needed five, six and sometimes seven capable players in pass coverage. In 2001, that wasn't a problem as Crennel could easily call upon players like Terrance Shaw and Terrell Buckley who had performed well elsewhere as starters earlier in their careers. Whether that remains the case in 2002 is yet to be determined.
The starting group figures to remain unchanged with Ty Law and the ageless Otis Smith at cornerback and Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones at safety. Jones established himself as the starter at free safety last season and his play improved steadily. Milloy went to his third Pro Bowl while Law made his second trip after some initial problems adapting to Belichick's team-oriented schemes in 2000.
Smith's performance was perhaps the key to the group's success. The 36-year-old found himself the target of most opponents' game plans but more often than not made them pay. He had occasional lapses but led the team with five interceptions and shared the team lead with Law by returning two for touchdowns. Smith and Law's strong play against Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce in the Super Bowl were instrumental in the victory.
The questions begin with the Patriots subpackages, which were so effective last year, especially late in the season. Shaw (Oakland) and Buckley (unrestricted free agent) are currently out of the picture and both saw a great deal of action in the playoffs. Buckley tied with Law for second on the club with three interceptions and lived up to his big-play reputation with timely contributions all season long.
Belichick recognized the need for experienced depth at cornerback and signed former first-round pick Tom Knight as a free agent. Knight is a five-year veteran who was taken with the ninth pick of the 1997 draft by Arizona out of Iowa. He figures to be the frontrunner for the nickel back spot, or could even push Smith for the starting job if the latter finally shows signs of aging. Either way, Knight represents a quality addition to the defensive backfield.
Finding some experience at cornerback was paramount because none of the remaining group has much. Ben Kelly will be entering his third season but hasn't seen much time on defense. His action has mostly been limited to special teams as a returner and hasn't been given much of a chance to show he can contribute as a cover man.
Leonard Myers and Brock Williams round out the corps. Myers showed flashes in his rookie season, contributing occasionally early as an extra DB but saw his action diminish as he was listed as one of the inactives in nine games and all three in the playoffs. Williams tore his ACL during rookie minicamp and missed the entire season, so the third-round pick has plenty to prove this summer.
Belichick took cornerbacks in each of his two drafts, selecting Antwan Harris (since moved to safety) in the sixth round in 2000 and Williams (third) and Myers (sixth round) in 2001. He might be inclined to look for another this season with Nebraska's Keyuo Craver and Miami's Mike Rumph figuring to be available at No. 32 when the Patriots pick first, assuming a Drew Bledsoe deal doesn't move them up.
A first-round corner is unlikely, though. The more likely scenario would be another mid-round selection or two to add to the competition for the nickel and dime packages. Belichick also chose a safety last year but Hakim Akbar (fifth round) was released after missing most of the season with injuries suffered in a car accident. The Patriots might look for someone to bolster a group that may be lacking in the coverage department.
Milloy and Jones grew into a physical tandem in 2001 and are set as the starters. Harris played well as a reserve down the stretch and made a pair of huge plays in the postseason, running Troy Brown's lateral in for a touchdown at Pittsburgh and forcing a Ricky Proehl fumble in the Super Bowl.
Veterans Je'Rod Cherry, Chris Hayes and Rob Kelly all will battle for the remaining spots. Cherry and Hayes, the former Jet who signed as a free agent, are valuable special teams performers. Neither figures to contribute much on defense but both could very well earn roster spots. Rob Kelly was a 1997 second-round pick for New Orleans who dropped so far that he was out of football in 2001. He is looking to resurrect his career and could be a sleeper in the Patriots secondary.
Coming tomorrow: a look at linebacker